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 south korea

shichigatsu 30 (jul)
The Insa Dong neighborhood in the heart of Seoul was vibrant with activity - tiny shops with gifts in vivid primary colors, goods in bins on the sidewalk, the smell of food from street stalls around every corner, textured handmade paper hanging on racks, tea shops up precipitous flights of stairs, young couples, tourists, and just life. I was traveling with a Japanese friend, and our hotel was right in the middle of it all.

Changdeokgung Palace had elaborately painted wooden beams in pinks and greens under curved tile roofs. I could envision the royalty milling about in their boldly colored gowns adorned with fine embroidery. You couldn't enter the Secret Garden without a guide and we weren't in time for a Japanese or English tour, so we opted for the next available, Chinese. It was a nature hike through dense forests with small, humble yet gracefully roofed and painted buildings. In the city center, a popular path along the Cheonggye Stream led to night-lit waterfalls.

The markets were endless - blocks after blocks of shops, in covered buildings, out on the streets, in carts or on blankets. Dongdaemon market branched off into dark alleys, barely enough room to walk, and difficult to negotiate around passing carts being pushed or dragged. At Namdaemon market, clothes were piled high on tables. Often the seller perched in the middle, on top of the table, throwing items to the women who rummaging through the pile.

The main street in Icheon, an hour from Seoul, was crammed with pottery shops, wares spread out before the open door: tall grain pots and round-bellied kimchee pots of dark brown clay, sparsely glazed with a brushed decoration if at all. Among these folk pots, painted pots and more modern art creations were the celadon pots I sought. An art form recently resurrected from old times, the cloudy pale green glaze has a delicately crackled surface.

In Busan, Beomeosa temple climbed up a steep hillside, home to so many Buddhas - big and small, gold ones, Buddhas painted on walls, tiny Buddhas in niches with lights, Buddhas of stone, of plastic, of wood, of metal. Busan Tower hovered over the night market. In the park where it lived, traditional drummers and dancers performed.

At Jagalchi Fish Market, a myriad of seafood splashed in tubs. We chose a round flat fish, a conch-like shellfish, and some large prawns. The first two were nicely sliced but the prawns were still alive; one kept jumping right off the plate! My friend tried to cut the feisty one, but he kept flipping; we looked at each other horrified. Finally, she asked the server to cut them up and they returned in thirds, although some of the heads were still moving.

Socially, Koreans seemed more direct, different from the unfailingly courteous Japanese. Sometimes people stared at me, and a few ignored us when asked politely for directions. In Busan, a volunteer at the subway ticket machines offered his assistance, but kept pushing the wrong buttons for my destination; a giver of advice, not a listener. He did help direct me to the gate for Nampodong as opposed to Nopodong, in the opposite direction. This assertive personality seemed to be a trait of the area; we encountered it several times with overly helpful people.

In GyeongJu, the ancient capital, 23 tall grassy mounds, natural looking tombs, blended into the landscape in Tumuli Park. The cicadas called so loudly in the morning that I almost listened for a melody. One tomb was intact and open for viewing. The kings of the Silla dynasty were buried with adornments and favored possessions, intended to equip or comfort the dead, to ward off evil, or to carry to life in the next world. Nearby Anapchi Pond was clogged with lotus plants.

Bulguksa Temple and Seokgurm Grotto were our third and fourth World Heritage sites on this journey. A steep hike up to the grotto revealed an amazing stone arc-shaped room, housing a magnificent Buddha looking out over the countryside, surrounded by figures in bas-relief.

In preparation for this trip, I had studied Korean arts and history, while my companion researched Korean food. A local helped us find our first restaurant, down a little alley. It was closing in about 45 minutes. We ordered three dishes. And always kimchee is served, of course. Makgeolli, a cloudy rice wine, came in a large bowl like soup, to be ladled into smaller bowls to drink. We expected small portions like in Japan, but there was way too much food! We ate Korean barbecue with a young woman my friend knew who lives in Seoul. My friend was amazed that she drank with us; there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving in Japan. There were no knives on the table, but scissors were available to cut the meat. A ssambap restaurant served thirty small dishes, some red and spicy, some tart and vinegary. I must say that I'm glad I chose Japan for my Asian residence instead of Korea. I like Japanese food so much better!

On our last night in Seoul, we went to a spa. I'm sure the masseuse scrubbed off a layer of my suntan. I sweated in a charcoal sauna, was smothered in a cucumber facial, coated with mud, had a rough massage in oils and soaked in a ginseng hot pool.


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